May 22, 2022

UNC-Chapel Hill Joins Project to Investigate Slavery and U.S. Universities Through Archival Records

From UNC Libraries:

In 2005, archivists at UNC-Chapel Hill developed “Slavery and the Making of the University.” The exhibition was one of the first systematic efforts on campus to examine the ways enslaved people enabled the University’s founding, growth and wealth.

Sixteen years later, a new generation of archivists at the Wilson Special Collections Library is leading efforts to reconstruct the lived experiences of enslaved individuals at and around the University.

Their efforts are part of On These Grounds: Slavery and the University. The national collaborative project takes a new approach to archival documents and the way archivists describe them. The goal is to understand “the lived reality of bondage at these institutions of higher education,” according to the project website.

“Traditionally, archivists create finding aids to describe what’s in a collection of documents,” said archivist Laura Hart, who is part of the project team at Carolina. “A finding aid describes the documents and centers the documents. On These Grounds instead centers the experiences of enslaved people.”

It’s a challenge that has long eluded historians and archivists, said Chaitra Powell, African American collections and outreach archivist at Wilson Library and manager of the project at UNC-Chapel Hill.


At the heart of the project is a database built around enslaved individuals and milestones or experiences in their lives, such as being born or dying, being sold or leased, receiving medical care, being baptized or laboring in a particular location or at a trade.


If enough institutions encode their slavery-related records using the same terms and data structures, and then enter that information into a single database, the compilation could eventually illuminate the lives of enslaved people and allow researchers to trace those lives through disparate documents.

“It’s all about the linked data,” said Hart.

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About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.